Even people in the happiest relationships tend to have some things that they wish they could change about their partners: habits they wish their partners would break, skills they wish their partners would hone, or personality traits they wish their partners would work on. But can a partner ever really change?
Well, yes, they can, with a great deal of hard work, and there will usually be some setbacks along the way.1 But what seems to be particularly important for people’s relationships is whether or not people think their partners can change.
People vary a great deal in how changeable they think others are. Some people hold incremental beliefs: they believe that with effort and perseverance, people can change themselves a great deal. Other people hold entity beliefs: they believe that people are pretty set in their ways, and that it is very difficult for a person to change in any meaningful way over time. Most past research indicates that holding strong incremental beliefs (“Of course people can change, it just takes work!”) is better for your relationship than holding strong entity beliefs (“People are the way they are, and they can’t really change”). For example, people with growth beliefs, a kind of incremental belief that we’ve talked about previously here at ScienceOfRelationships.com, tend to be more understanding of their partners’ flaws than are people who believe those flaws are permanent.2 But is believing that your partner can change always the best for your relationship?
Lara Kammrath and Johanna Peetz3 hypothesized that incremental beliefs might cause problems for relationships when a partner fails to improve over time. For example, imagine that Fred Flintstone – who frequently gets impatient and upset (“WILMA!!”) – promises Wilma that he will work on his temper. However, a few weeks later, Fred continues to get frustrated easily. If Wilma is an entity theorist, she might chalk that up to the difficulty of changing oneself (“Fred just isn’t a very calm person; it’s hard for him to change that”). But if Wilma is an incremental theorist, then she might chalk Fred’s inability to change up to lack of effort (“Fred just isn’t trying hard enough like he said he would.”). Such an attribution – i.e., that one’s partner just isn’t trying enough – may be more detrimental to the relationship, compared to the attribution that it is truly difficult for the partner to change.
Kammrath and Peetz tested this hypothesis with a two-week-long study. They brought couples into the lab and randomly assigned one member of the couple to be the “change-striver”: the partner who is going to try to work on themselves. The couple selected a problem behavior that they would most like the change-striving partner to work on. The change-striver then generated up to four specific behavioral improvements that he or she would attempt to make over the next two weeks. For example, if Fred was the change-striver in this task, and he and Wilma decided that he was to work on his temper, then he might make some promises like “speak calmly about things when they bother me,” or “do not shout at people.” The change-strivers promised their partners that they would do these behaviors over the next two weeks. Then, the researchers followed up with the couple two weeks later to see whether or not the change-striver’s promises were kept.
Incremental theorists (people with strong incremental beliefs) were more confident that their partners would be able to keep their promises to change. However, their partners were no more likely to actually keep those promises, compared to the partners of entity theorists. Furthermore, when partners did fail to change, incremental theorists thought that their partners did not try hard enough, and they responded with less trust in their partners. In contrast, entity theorists attributed their partners’ failures to the difficulty of keeping the promises (i.e., it was not their partner’s fault), and, as a result, did not lose trust their partners when their partners failed to keep those promises. In other words, entity theorists – who tend to believe that change is difficult if not impossible – cut their partners a lot more slack for failing to keep their promises compared to incremental theorists.
These results suggest that the belief that people can change, while generally good for romantic relationships, may sometimes lead people to expect a bit too much of their partners. Incremental theorists may expect their partners to change too quickly and easily, without any setbacks or failures. Then, when their partners fall short of their promises to change, incremental theorists may come to the conclusion that their partners just didn’t try hard enough. In sum, while it is true that people can change, it is important to realize that even the most enthusiastic partners can’t change themselves overnight.
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1Prochaska, J., Velicer, W. F., Rossi, J. S., Goldstein, M. G., Marcus, B. H., Rawowski, W., et al.(1994). Stages of change and decisional balance for 12 problem behaviors. Health Psychology, 13, 39-46.
2Knee, C., Nanayakkara, A., Vieter, N.A., Neighbors, C., & Patrick,H. (2001). Implicit theories of relationships: Who cares if romantic partners are less than ideal? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 808-819.
3Kammrath, L. K., & Peetz, J. (2012). You promised you’d change: How incremental and entity theorists react to a romantic partner’s promised change attempts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 570-574.
Samantha Joel - Science of Relationships articles
Samantha's research examines how people make decisions about their romantic relationships. For example, what sort of factors do people take into consideration when they try to decide whether to pursue a potential date, invest in a new relationship, or break up with a romantic partner?